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Journeys far and near

Four novels, old and new

The Nesting Dolls by Alina Adams: The Nesting Dolls, out on July 14, is a fascinating multigeneration tale that moves from Stalin-era Siberia to Brighton Beach, N.Y., in 2019. The story focuses on the women in a Russian Jewish family who face incredible obstacles just to survive. Adams shows the horrors of Stalin’s Soviet Union and the desperate choices some people made. The book ends with Zoya, a young woman who grew up in the United States. She has a private-school education and privileges her parents and grandparents could only dream of. She loves them and finds them embarrassing, not much interested in their histories and how the past shaped them. Adams combines rich historical detail with an engrossing narrative. The book contains several obscenities directed at Stalin.

Miss Julia Knows a Thing or Two by Ann B. Ross: In this 22nd book in a long-running series, Miss Julia has turned over a new leaf. She vows no longer to be a busybody, but circumstances make that pledge hard to keep. For one thing, her starchy next-door neighbor and good friend has learned she has a grandchild. For another, her plans to help a friend buy a business and gain economic security seem likely to go awry. Miss Julia’s husband is a good foil, tempering some of her enthusiasms. He loves and admires her despite her faults. Christians will appreciate Ross’ depiction of Miss Julia, a Christian with many faults who is also quick to acknowledge them.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger: When their father dies during the Great Depression, two Irish American siblings end up at a boarding school for Native children. Although some of the teachers care about the kids, the school’s leaders condone and participate in abuse. Four children run away in search of identity and a home. Their journey takes them down the Mississippi River, where they meet bandits and faith healers, keeping one step ahead of the school officials who pursue them. Krueger tells a page-turning tale, rich in historical detail and many fantastic elements. The children encounter characters that reflect incredible human kindness and others who display the depths of human depravity.

One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross by Harry Kemelman: Harry Kem­elman died in 1996, but his series of mystery novels lives on. Set in a Boston suburb, the novels feature Rabbi David Small, who oversees the only synagogue in town and manages to offend many in his congregation by his unwillingness to put up with silliness. Kemelman sets the action of this novel in Jerusalem, where Rabbi Small and his wife are spending the summer. Trouble brews when he refuses to attend a bar mitzvah for a middle-aged man at the Western Wall and seems to implicate a wayward son in a crime. Kemelman’s novels are politically dated, but they offer clean fun and insight into a Jewish worldview and congregational politics.

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Quests for integrity

New books look into the importance of character

Dan Crenshaw spent a decade as a Navy SEAL and lost a right eye in Afghanistan. He gained national celebrity in 2018 when a Saturday Night Live comedian made light of his sacrifice and Crenshaw showed character by gracefully responding. Now he’s a member of Congress with a new book out—Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage (Twelve, 2020)—that is far above the typical self-serving book by a rising politician.

Crenshaw thoughtfully criticizes those on the right and left who read a social media post and jump to conclusions. He wonders why many people want to be seen as “oppressed” rather than pressing onward against obstacles. He emphasizes the importance of a sense of duty and offers a checklist for measuring ourselves: “You have a duty to accomplish something every day … to overcome your hardships and not wallow in self-pity … to contribute, even if your contribution is small.”

Crenshaw describes the arduous process for becoming a SEAL and shows how others who fail much easier tests blame others and, instead of seeing how they can change, ask, “Which politician is going to fix it for me?” His American history is accurate: Crenshaw goes back to Woodrow Wilson’s progressivism and sees his epigones not as evil but as pushers of an ideology that is “unsustainable, inherently anti-liberty, and naïve in its utopian pursuit.”

For those not at the SEAL level, other character-formers may suffice. Those called to be pastors desperately need the fruit of the Spirit: Aaron Menikoff points out in Character Matters (Moody, 2020) that “the pastor who feels the need to power his church to greatness through the exercise of his own gifts underestimates the power of the gospel.”

Having character means putting up with sticks and stones and also words that can hurt. Russell Jacoby’s On Diversity (Seven Stories Press, 2020) emphasizes diversity of ideas but notes that “diversity” has become a battering ram against free speech. Jacoby quotes the contention of Berkeley professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes that “the First Amendment deserves to be re-looked at” because “medical anthropologists, clinical psychologists, and neurological scientists” have learned that free speech “can harm the central nervous system.” Maybe that’s true, but not having free speech definitely harms our brains. For example, “diversity” to college students means race and ethnicity, or various kinds of sexual dysphoria—not diversity of ideas and beliefs. 

Concern about conformity trumping character has been around for a long time—Alexis de Tocque­ville worried about it in the 1830s—but technology now gives activists the ability to attack diverse thoughts instantly. Owen Strachan in Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind (Mentor, 2019) describes our need to understand that humans are made in God’s image, yet those “believing and living according to the reasonable wisdom of the Word of God” face scorn. What to do? Strachan notes, “The church that trusts and obeys the Bible is doing just what it should do.”

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Deception, mystery, and romance

Four novels from Christian publishers

If I Were You by Lynn Austin: Audrey and Eve become fast friends as children on an estate near London. They grow up and grow apart until the onset of World War II rekindles their friendship. Audrey plans to move to the United States with her American husband after the war. But when he’s killed, she opts to stay in familiar surroundings in England. Seeing a way out of poverty, Eve assumes Audrey’s identity and moves to America, duping Audrey’s in-laws into thinking she’s their dead son’s wife. When Audrey finally travels to New York to meet her in-laws, she discovers her old friend’s deception. This engrossing story explores the power of friendship and forgiveness and illustrates God’s willingness to welcome back His children when they return to Him in repentance.

The Summer House by Lauren K. Denton: Lily Bishop woke one morning to find divorce papers and a shocking goodbye note from her husband. Recently relocated to rural Alabama for her husband’s new job, she has no friends or connections to the place. A chance encounter leads her to apply as the live-in hairdresser at Safe Harbor Retirement Village. The village manager is a gruff woman who for some reason feels empathy for Lily, and she offers her the job on the spot. Despite her age difference to most of the residents, Lily builds a new life for herself in the community. A friendship with a local shrimper hints at possible future romance. This hope-filled starting-over story features quirky characters in a Southern coastal setting.

Carolina Breeze by Denise Hunter: When the tabloids declare her guilt in a Hollywood scandal, actress Mia Emerson needs somewhere to hide from paparazzi. She takes refuge in remote Bluebell, N.C.—the destination of her now-canceled honeymoon, as well as her dead mother’s childhood home. There she meets innkeeper Levi Bennett, a hardworking guy trying to take care of his sisters and keep the family business afloat. An old journal written by Mia’s grandmother suggests a valuable necklace could be hidden at the inn. Mia and Levi team up to search for it. Their mutual attraction grows despite their lives being worlds apart. Mia’s insecurity stemming from her father’s abandonment further complicates their relationship. This charming tale is Book 2 in the Bluebell Inn Romance series but works as a standalone.

Masquerade at Middlecrest Abbey by Abigail Wilson: Set in 1815 England, Masquerade at Middlecrest Abbey is a well-balanced mix of historical romance and murder mystery. Lord Adrian Torrington, owner of Middlecrest Abbey, is a British spy against the French. To disguise his latest covert mission, he proposes marriage to Elizabeth Cantrell. The single mother sees no better option and reluctantly agrees to a marriage of convenience. Ironically—and secretly—the father of her child is Lord Torrington’s wayward brother. Both Adrian and Elizabeth assume their sinful past decisions have forever doomed them to unhappiness. But they find that with the forgiveness of God and each other, they have a chance for love and contentment. 

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